A colorful community of tents already had been erected by the time we drove into Bear Brook Campground in Baxter State Park recently. The rest in our large camping group had gotten there early, and they already were unwinding in camp chairs, playing games and unearthing snacks from coolers.
“Did you bring the pasta?” my aunt asked.
Yes, I had. And the rolls and pre-sliced vegetables, packed away in two coolers filled with ice we picked up at Hannaford in Millinocket. But if we had forgotten our assigned food, it wouldn’t have mattered much. Among the 30 or so campers, there were plenty of vittles to go around. Everyone brings something to contribute to the smorgasboard.
Car camping in Baxter is a tradition for my family, something we do every summer. Over the years, we’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.
When I use the term “car camping,” I mean camping near your car, not in it, in a tent, camper or camp. This type of camping is a great introductory activity for people who want to spend more time in the outdoors but don’t necessarily want to “rough it.” With the car nearby, you can have heaps of gear and food readily available. You can bring board games and blow-up mattresses, grills and hammocks, marshmallow skewers and bottles of fresh water.
“Car camping has evolved to where it used to be that people brought a tent, sleeping bags and a stove, and now they bring everything but the kitchen sink,” said Bruce Farnham, park manager of Mount Blue State Park, home to four group camping sites, including an RV site.
I have to disagree with Farnham. My family actually brings the kitchen sink — a bin to wash our dishes after feasting each night.
“The only problem is people have to be conscious of the campsites,” Farnham said. “If you bring too many things, it turns into sprawl, where you don’t have enough room on your site, so you’re putting stuff off into the woods.
“But, generally, people are respectful of the property,” he continued.
If you’re interested in getting into car camping in Maine, here are a few tips and tricks that will help you have a more enjoyable experience, whether you’re planning to camp in a large group, with just a few people or alone.
Campsites vary greatly. Do your research.
Maine is home to hundreds of car camping locations, which vary not only in location but the amenities offered. Some campgrounds offer hot water, flush toilets, electricity and meals, while other campsites have none of these things. Ask yourself: Can you go without a hot shower? Do you want to pack your meals? Do you want to be secluded, or would you prefer to meet people?
“Camping is a huge part of the tourism industry in the state of Maine, and it’s not just tenting anymore,” said Kathy Dyer, executive director of the Maine Campground Owners Association, which lists 181 private campground owners in Maine, as well as the 12 Maine State Parks that offer camping at campmaine.com. “There’s tenting and RVing and motor homes and rental units and full-service cabins. We have all types of camping.”
Before making a reservation, which is required at many campgrounds, do your research and make sure the place fits your needs and wants. And in addition to learning about the campground’s amenities, review its regulations. In many campgrounds, dogs aren’t permitted. In others, alcohol is prohibited.
“Some campgrounds don’t take credit cards,” Dyer said. “Very few, but there are still some out there.”
Bring a map.
As you travel into the Maine wilderness, you may find you lose cellphone reception and your GPS doesn’t appear to be working quite right. (It says you’re driving off road, but you’re definitely on a road — right?) It’s good to have a road map and print directions as a backup, said Farnham, who often has to help lost campers find the campsites of Mount Blue State Park because their GPS has directed them to the wrong side of Webb Lake.
Make a loose itinerary.
While loafing around at camp can be fun, you may find yourself getting restless. Research what’s in the area for activities and attractions beforehand so you have a list to work from.
“The better planned out the trip is, the better off you are,” Farnham said. “You can use your camping site as a sort of hub, taking little side trips and exploring the area from there.”
Learn from someone who has experience.
One of the best ways for a novice camper to learn about camping and have a good experience is by camping with an experienced camper or group of campers.
“Probably the best thing we see is multigenerational groups,” said Jean Hoekwater, park naturalist at Baxter State Park, “where a grandfather takes his daughter and husband and children out to his favorite fishing hole and they camp out. That kind of thing works out. He can share what he used to do.”
Prepare meals as much as you can ahead of time.
Cook pasta, cut up vegetables, mix up salads, marinate meat and slice bread. Do these kitchen tasks before you go camping so you don’t have to prepare much while at camp. Store prepared meals in freezer bags and containers, put what needs to be refrigerated in coolers with ice and when you get to camp, most of the hard work is done.
Don’t be afraid to sleep comfortably.
When car camping, you don’t need to sleep in a one-person tent on a thin bedroll. After all, you only have to carry your gear a few yards from the car. Feel free to bring a spacious tent and a blow-up mattress or a cot. Your nighttime setup doesn’t have to be elaborate to offer a good night’s sleep.
Have a rainy day plan.
In Maine, the weather can change quickly — regardless of the forecast. Don’t let the rain stop your fun at camp.
“Have a rainy day plan, either by researching what is in town or what you have at your own disposal in your vehicle — be it toys or board games,” Hoekwater said. “It’s best if you’ve thought about it ahead of time, rather than realizing you’ve forgotten a deck of cards.”
Buy firewood from a local source.
Insects and diseases that damage forests can move on firewood. As a rule of thumb, don’t transport firewood more than 50 miles, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Some campsites locations, such as Baxter State Park, do not allow visitors to bring firewood period. Campers must purchase firewood on location.
Know your water situation and plan accordingly.
At many wilderness campsites, running water is not available and you must bring your own drinking water or purify water from streams, springs and ponds. A 2.5 gallon water container with a tap — or several — is ideal for car camping. Just set it on a picnic table or the tailgate of a car, and you’re all set. You’ll need enough water to drink, wash dishes, cooking with and brush your teeth. Remember to bring cups or water bottles.
Don’t leave food or fragrant items unattended.
Many critters in the Maine woods — black bear, chipmunks, racoons — will be attracted to aromatic items, and they’ll ruin your camping gear to get to them. Baxter State Park advises that all campers store food, toiletries, cooking utensils and scented items in your vehicle with windows rolled all the way up. This includes empty drink bottles, shampoo and soaps. Make a habit of storing these items in your car each evening and if you leave the campsite during the day.
Leave no trace.
No matter where your campsite is and what amenities it offers, campers are expected to pick up after themselves or in other words “leave no trace.” When my family packs up to leave camp, everyone is expected pitch in to make it seem like we were never there. We do what we call “a sweep,” scanning every square inch of the campsite to make sure we aren’t leaving anything behind, down to the last popcorn kernel.